Long may this folk horror renaissance continue when it’s producing such striking films as Tereza Nvotová’s Nightsiren. The filmmaker’s sophomore feature is far from the first to use the suspicion of women deemed as a little too in tune with nature as a means of explore wider themes of explicit and internalised misogyny, but it’s a full-blooded affair awash in dazzling imagery. And unlike recent witchy classics like The Witch and Hagazussa, it’s a solidly contemporary affair.
Šarlota (Natália Germáni) is a nurse who returns to her tiny village in the Slovakian mountains after the death of her mother. She immediately draws the scowls and muttered oaths of village residents, who had thought her dead for years, and who suspected her mother of being a witch. Her return also triggers traumatic memories of the accidental death of her little sister around two decades earlier. Coming back seems to have been a terrible decision, until she’s befriended by the mysterious Mira (Eva Mores), an herbalist who has her own ambiguous relationship with the village.
While adopting the similar moody slow-burn of the earlier historical horrors it most directly resembles, Nvotová grabs the attention straight away with a stunning and shocking opening scene in which Šarlota’s path is set in one fateful split-second. With the film also featuring some gorgeously psychedelic, orgiastic scenes of a witches’ sabbath, it demonstrates Nvotová’s grasp of both quotidian and supernatural horror – and the versatility of DP Federico Cesca. It also suggests an ambiguity to Šarlota’s homecoming. She seems to be the catalyst for some dormant forces awakening, but of what sort? Is it repressed anger against the mother being unleashed against her daughter, or is there some genuine credence to the villager’s superstitions?
The two central protagonists are vividly drawn and their stories allowed to unspool organically. Germáni and Mores embody an educated, intelligent, and independent kind of femininity at odds with the traditional roles assumed, and violently upheld, by many of the women in the village. Both are seen as antagonists by the locals. Mira is casually promiscuous with whichever man take her fancy in a particular moment, which draws ire from the partners and spouses of those men, and the men themselves when they realise this doesn’t entitle them to future favours. And they resent Šarlota as the offspring of a ‘witch’, as well as embodying the trope of the prodigal returnee with more modern ideas than those who remained would care for. In a neat touch, she also suffers from a particular affliction – revealed in another moment of carefully-calibrated surprise – which would have been gleefully seized upon as evidence of a diabolical nature in the time of Matthew Hopkins and his ilk.
Another interesting figure who exists in a muddy liminal state between the two worlds is Helen (played sympathetically with a bewildered fatalism by Juliana Olhová) who has been raised riddled with all the prejudices of her village, but who also harbours deep feelings for the free-spirited Mira. Her fate is the spark against flint that ignites the bonfire of feeling between the two camps, suggesting that there is no way to reconcile the two ways of living.
It’s a potent tale of generational violence and female empowerment. It’s rich in symbolism and is consistently a wonder to look at. Some flaws exist however. The central mystery isn’t anywhere near as obtuse as the writing implies; there are times when an attempt at revelation feels like the confirmation of some doomy inevitability. And when one ponders with any real thought just why Mira would stay in such a place it pushes one towards some obvious conclusions. Finally, apart from Helen, the villagers aren’t drawn with any real nuance and are overtly portrayed as villainous, with only a few exceptions. This reduces the corresponding ambiguity of Mira and points to a clear narrative direction earlier in the film than one assumes is intentional.
Yet, Nightsiren is an otherwise gripping addition to the increasingly stuffed canon of folk-horror that has exploded in recent years. It has a lot to say about the nature of generational violence, and the kind of misogyny that has petrified into acceptance through the weight of tradition. Of course, it has a lot to say about other traditions too, and one if left to draw one’s own conclusions whether Šarlota is genuinely of magical stock. A ferocious tale that manipulates familiar tropes into a personal, and culturally specific, vision.
Screening as part of Glasgow Film Festival on Mon 6 & Tue 7 Mar 2023 at GFT 2